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Just say no


Thursday October 21, 2004

The Guardian,12956,1331932,00.html

On the battlefield, all war still comes down to the age-old realities of life and death. But modern war, especially when fought by citizen democracies in an interactive age under the sleepless gaze of the 24-hour news cycle, also takes place in a wider context unknown by earlier generations. Faced with mobile phones and electronic news gathering, no prime minister could now maintain public support for a campaign on the Western Front for a single day in the way that Lloyd George and his contemporaries were able to do for more than four years. But modern societies are also fundamentally less obedient, respectful and conformist than their forebears. So modern politicians must today continually make the case for war to their voters and must win the argument anew at every significant new turn in the conflict. That is the situation which today faces Tony Blair, as he struggles to persuade the British people that our troops should be deployed to a new and potentially more dangerous theatre in the Iraq conflict.

This morning, ministers will sit round the cabinet table to hear Mr Blair and the defence secretary Geoff Hoon recommend that some 650 British soldiers should be moved from the south of Iraq to the centre of the country in order to free up American forces for an expected assault on Falluja and other centres of armed Arab resistance. This is a big decision for our country, for a variety of reasons, and it is right that the whole cabinet should be involved in it. Ministers will need to ask themselves very frankly whether the threatened onslaught against Falluja is an operation in which Britain should be involved, especially in the light of the disastrous and bloody attack on the town earlier this year. They will need to ask, too, whether the United States, with 130,000 troops already in the field, and tens of thousands others able to be flown in at short notice, really seeks British support for military reasons or for political ones. They will need to ask what the consequences of this move will be for the redeployed troops, who will now be at much greater risk of injury and death, as well as for the inevitably depleted forces left behind to maintain the peace around Basra. Those questions should in turn compel them to consider the political consequences of these moves here at home, not only among the military families most directly affected but also among a sceptical and divided nation that will go to the polls to pass its verdict on the government in only a few months time.

Formally, it may seem enough for ministers to take this decision on their own. But for constitutional and political reasons alike, it clearly ought also to be voted on in parliament. The constitutional reason is that parliament voted to start this war. That was a historic precedent which is unlikely to be ignored in any future conflict. As a result of it, parliament owns our involvement in Iraq. So parliament should also now be able to vote on this major escalation of Britain's involvement. That would be the right course even if the war was popular. But the mistrust which now automatically clings to any claim or decision made about Iraq by Mr Blair now makes a parliamentary vote politically essential too. Mr Blair misled the country about the conflict from the start because he never owned up to the fact that Britain went into Iraq to stay close to the US. He has compounded that terrible mistake on many occasions since, not least in the secretive and suspicious way in which this troop move request has been handled. Mr Blair's response to the request for our troops to be redeployed into central Iraq shows he has learned nothing from the debacle of the last two years. MPs of all parties should demand their right to hold this latest plan to account. Let parliament decide on America's request - and let parliament decide to say no.